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Iraq weapons report fires up Bush's critics

Former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay describes himself as "a knave in the world of politics." Yet Kay's comments have reignited what promises to be an intense political debate leading up to the November presidential election.

Based on Kay's findings that Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, Democrats have stepped up their criticism of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq a year ago.

This theme was first introduced into the presidential campaign by Democrat Howard Dean, even before Kay reported that his team of experts had found no weapons of mass destruction. Dean has used the issue to criticize not only the president, but also the other Democratic contenders who voted for the war.

Now, however, even those Democrats who authorized the war _ including Sens. John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman _ can argue that they were lied to by the president. Kerry says he was "repeatedly misled" about Iraq by the Bush administration.

Karlyn Bowman, polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, says the president is "potentially vulnerable" to such charges, primarily because more than 500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq.

Polls show a majority of Americans were convinced by the administration that Hussein not only was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons, but also developing nuclear capability.

At the same time, Bowman doubts that Democrats can effectively use this issue to undermine voter confidence in Bush.

"I just don't think this issue is going to stick," Bowman said. "The public has very much made up its mind on this issue. Weapons of mass destruction never had the potency in the United States that it had in Britain."

Judging from Bush's initial reaction to the controversy, there is little doubt his political advisers see it as a potential mine field and are doing their best to soft-pedal the importance of weapons of mass destruction as a reason for invading Iraq.

Earlier this week, when the president was asked about Kay's statements, he suggested Hussein's alleged cache of weapons of mass destruction was only one of many reasons the United States decided to invade Iraq. Bush said he still believes Hussein's regime posed "a grave and gathering threat to America and the world."

Republicans also have cautioned that even though the search for evidence of weapons in Iraq by a team of U.S. experts is winding down, it's still possible it could be found. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said there is reason for concern if no such weapons are found, but "we are not there yet."

Kay, a bespectacled bureaucrat with a keen mind and a long history of public service, does not support the Democrats' conclusions that the war was not justified. He said it was "absolutely prudent for the United States to go to war" because Hussein was a dangerous dictator who presided over a corrupt regime.

But Democrats have chosen to ignore Kay's defense of the decision to go to war. Instead, they have scoured the public record from 2002 and early 2003 for quotes from Bush and other administration officials that now appear to be false.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, offered a litany of such quotes at a committee hearing Wednesday:

On Aug. 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney said: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, our allies and against us."

On Oct. 7, 2002, Bush said Iraq "possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons."

On Feb. 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations: "Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent. That is enough agent to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets."

Levin contended that while the administration could have argued for war in Iraq on the basis of its poor human rights record or Hussein's intentions of becoming a nuclear power, Bush and other top officials focused primarily on these alleged stockpiles.

"The case for war was Iraq's possession, production, deployment and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction," he emphasized.

No one knows for certain why Hussein may have falsely led the world to believe he had such stockpiles by refusing to cooperate with United Nations arms inspectors. Kay thinks the Iraqi dictator wanted to maintain his strong man image in the Middle East, even at the risk of inviting a U.S. invasion.

Anthony H. Cordesman, military scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, scoffs at the Democrats' efforts to portray Bush as having taken the United States to war on false pretenses. Like Kay, he argues that none of the experts knew at the time the intelligence reports were wrong.

"People are missing the whole point of what David is saying," Cordesman said. "He's saying there are limitations on intelligence; there are limitations on weapons analysis."

But Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who voted against the war and was a long-time member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Kay's conclusions confirm his own view at the time that al-Qaida posed a far greater risk to the United States than Iraq.

Yet unlike other Democrats, Graham said voters should measure Bush not by what he said before the war but by what he does now to correct flaws in the government's international intelligence operations.

"I think the president of the United States has an obligation to determine who was responsible and then lead a serious effort to reform the system," Graham added.

So far, Bush has not acknowledged his intelligence was wrong. If the president continues to ignore the problem,, Graham said, it is proof "he is living in a state of denial."

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has called for an independent investigation of the flaws in U.S. intelligence about the alleged Iraqi weapons stockpiles. Republicans have cautioned that the Democrats should wait for the results of investigations already under way by the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he is upset that he voted for the war after receiving a classified intelligence briefing suggesting that Iraq had the capability to launch missiles carrying biological and chemical weapons from ships off the East Coast of the United States.

"It don't like it one bit that it wasn't true," said Nelson.

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